“Faith takes practice.” So says the title character in John Irving’s Prayer for Owen Meany. That faith is a gift is a tenet of Christian theology. We can’t earn faith; it’s God’s free gift to us. We can develop it. We can test it out, try it on, see how it fits and how it makes us fit. Faith is not simply assenting to certain truths; it is forming your life in accordance with those truths. And forming your life in such a way leads necessarily to reforming your life continually.
In our discussions of Gilead and Home, we saw how Gilead taught us about love and how Home taught us about hope. To complete the Paul’s famous trilogy, Lila teaches us about faith. It doesn’t teach us about the articles of the Christian faith, although we see how Rev Ames – Lila’s teacher and ours – acts as a Christian. Instead, Lila teaches us the central Christian truth so nicely summarized by the chaplain in Phil Klay’s story “A Prayer in the Furnace”: “The only thing He promises in this life is that we don’t suffer alone.” In teaching us about faith, Lila teaches us about how faith, suffering, and community join to make us human.
Unlike Home, whose story is contemporaneous with Gilead’s story, Lila tells us about Lila Dahl before she met and married Rev John Ames. We learn that Lila was taken from her birth parents, who clearly neglected her, by a woman we only know as Doll. “Doll may have been the loneliest woman in the world, and she was the loneliest child, and there they were, the two of them together, keeping each other warm in the rain” (5) For much of Lila’s life, Doll provided the only warmth—physical and otherwise – that she ever received. Doll was the only community Lila was ever part of. While they roamed with Doane and his people looking for work, Lila and Doll knew the arrangement was only temporary. After hearing Doane talk about tramps and Indians and gypsies, Lila asks Doll if they are gypsies, “What are we, then? And Doll had said, We’re just folks. But Lila could tell that wasn’t true, that there was more to it anyway.” (47)
What more could there be? What does faith teach us about being human? How does suffering affect who we are? What language does our community teach us?
We learn that Lila has only a year of formal schooling, but we also learn that she’s wrong when she refers to herself as “an ignorant woman.” A large part of Lila’s wisdom comes from the fact that she is not afraid to wonder at what she sees.
In the first ninety or so pages of the novel, we see Lila testing out what it might mean to be a Christian. She copies out passages from Ezekiel, Job, and Genesis. She interacts with the people in Rev Ames’s church. And she comes to decide:
Her name had the likeness of a name. She had the likeness of a woman, with hands but not face at all, since she never let herself see it. She had the likeness of a life, because she was all alone in it. She lived in the likeness of a house, with walls and a roof and a door that kept nothing in and nothing out. And when Doll took her up and swept her away, she had felt a likeness of wings. She thought, Strange as all this is, there might be something to it. (68)
The talk of likeness here comes from the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel, but of course we can think of Genesis 1:26-28 where God makes human beings in his image and likeness. We -- all of us – live in and as the image and likeness of God, but also in the image and likeness of what we might become. To talk this way, though, is itself an act of faith. As Rev. Ames explains in the letter that he writes to Lila,
My faith tells me that God shared poverty, suffering, and death with human beings, which can only mean that such things are full of dignity and meaning, even though to believe this makes a great demand on one’s faith, and to act as if this were true in any way we understand is to be ridiculous. It is ridiculous also to act as if it were not absolutely and essentially true all the same. Even though we are to do everything we can to put an end to poverty and suffering.
I have struggled with this my whole life.
I still have not answered your question, I know, but thank you for asking it. I may be learning something from the attempt. (77)
Until Lila met John Ames and became a part of his community that was united by faith, her suffering and her poverty and her loneliness were undignified and meaningless. Rev Ames can’t explain to her why terrible things happen. He can only share with her his faith that can help make sense of those terrible things. Baptism won’t make her “clean and acceptable,” but in the eyes of John Ames and his God, she is a “newborn babe” “washed in the waters of regeneration.”
Baptism doesn’t answer Lila’s questions. It might, though, give her a language to discuss them. It might allow her to see her own face and look into her own soul.
If you think about a human face, it can be something you don’t want to look at, because it pretty well shows where you’ve been and what you expect. And anybody at all can see it, but you can’t. It just floats right there in front of you. It might as well be your soul, for all you can do to protect it. What isn’t strange, when you think about it. (82)
Thought leads to strangeness which leads to wonder which leads to reverence. Or so Lila’s reminded me.